A Subtle surprise: His Dark Materials team unpacks that world-changing reveal
Warning: This article contains spoilers for the second episode of His Dark Materials, “The Idea of North.”
The second episode of HBO’s His Dark Materials delivered many familiar story beats (and reveals) from Philip Pullman’s books, namely that the Gobblers are really The General Oblation Board, which Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson) secretly heads; The Magisterium launched the board in their pursuit to find out all they could about Dust; and Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) is not really Lyra’s uncle. But, there was another big surprise that wasn’t explicitly laid out in the source material — at least, not in The Golden Compass — and also sets the tone for what this new show will become.
In his first book from his Dark Materials trilogy, Pullman only gives Lord Boreal (Ariyon Bakare), Mrs. Coulter’s cohort, a brief appearance: He’s a guest at the apartment party from which Lyra makes her escape. It’s not until book 2, The Subtle Knife, where he becomes a much more prominent presence in the fantasy saga. Because of child labor laws, the producers couldn’t use 14-year-old Dafne Keen for every scene in season 1, the way Lyra’s arc plays out in that initial book. So, they had to find other threads to follow.
“We expanded that [Boreal] part in order, partly, to give Mrs. Coulter someone to talk to, but also because we were fascinated by the character who is already crossing through worlds,” executive producer Jane Tranter explains to EW. “It’s clear he’s been crossing through worlds for years, and we were fascinated by the fact that Philip gave us a glimpse of him in Book 1 and then went on to really develop him as a character in Book 2,” Tranter continues. “We thought, if he’s going to be this big of a character in season 2 [which adapts The Subtle Knife], let’s use him in season 1. Boreal also brings a healthy drop of thriller genre with him and we wanted to make use of that.”
In the TV adaptation, viewers meet Boreal as an agent of the Consistorial Court of Discipline, a branch of The Magisterium concerned with heresy. He arrives at Jordan College to investigate what Lord Asriel presented as the beheaded remains of scholar Stanislaus Grumman.
“He was described to me as a man of power and [the producers] made it quite clear that they didn’t want him to be the Charles Dance character that most people imagine him to be,” Bakare says of his initial conversations. “They just said that he was a man of secrets, in his own world. He was a scholar of Jordan College. Part of The Magisterium and that his one weakness was Mrs. Coulter.” Bakare further used Boreal’s daemon, a snake, to flesh out the persona. “I practiced thinking he’s like a cobra and thinking about hypnotism and thinking about always trying to keep peoples’ gaze, never showing what I’m feeling.”
When Boreal learns Asriel lied about Stanislaus, he decides he must “cross.” Through a hidden window between realities, Boreal then travels into the Oxford of our world and meets one of his contacts to investigate the whereabouts of Stanislaus. It’s in this reality that Boreal has been living under the name Charles Latrom, another element introduced in The Subtle Knife.
Stanislaus, meanwhile, is actually another name of John Parry, an explorer from our world who managed to find a way of traveling to Lyra’s world. Fleabag‘s Andrew Scott will portray John in season 2, but season 1 offers us a photograph to tease his impending arrival, as well as John’s son Will Parry, to be played by Amir Wilson.
The decision to show Boreal’s cross-world dealings came during filming already commenced on season 1, according to Bakare. “It was just an interesting time because no one knew what it would be like. No one knew if it would actually fit with the scripts we had already, but it really worked.”
Since there’s so much of Boreal left out of the books, Bakare wrote his own “biography” for the character. The actor decided he would have become “a collector of items” between realities, someone who “made himself quite wealthy in the new world.” “I told Jane and everybody else, and everyone seemed to like it,” Bakare says. Tranter and teleplay writer Jack Thorne then took these ideas to Pullman for his final thoughts and the general response was, “Yep, that’s right.”
Another big tweak from book-to-screen is the time period. Pullman wrote his books with the mid-’90s in mind, but when Boreal crosses over in the TV series, he finds himself surrounded by smartphones and computer hackers. Tranter didn’t want to set her drama in 1995, when The Golden Compass was published, because then she would be dealing with two dueling period dramas.
“We wanted to make it work for 2019 and Philip was fine on that,” she says. “We then were just mindful of how technology makes a difference… The rule of The Magisterium in Lyra’s world, the whole point of their rule is to discourage learning and information and exploration. They want the world to be the same so they can control it. We, therefore, very deliberately designed Lyra’s world to have gone through neither an industrial revolution nor a technological revolution. It would be clear to us that when a character like Boreal crosses through to our world, he would be completely fascinated by information being free and what technology could offer.”
“In Will’s world, he’s much more of a power figure,” Bakare elaborates of Boreal. “In Lyra’s world, he’s a worker. He works for other people. He’s more like a servant, like MI5 or something. In Will’s world, he is his own man. He’s just a powerful person. What we found really interesting was, when I started working with other people in Will’s world, how he couldn’t really change or adapt his nature. I have to hide my daemon, no one’s allowed to see my daemon, and then I think about how does that affect him inside? That makes him even more controlled, more tight in his own being as a person.”
When Boreal finally does arrive at Mrs. Coulter’s party and says, cheekily, that he’s been in Oxford, viewers aren’t scratching their heads so much. Bakare notes that Boreal is “the only person within His Dark Materials who’s actually a proper adversary to Marisa. They are just as evil as each other, and I wanted to make sure I was the male version of her.”
Every time he and Wilson get together to play off their characters, it becomes “darker and darker and darker,” he adds. “We find these kind of tensions that sometimes are not even on the page. We’re very playful, but yes we know we have to also keep ourselves quite restrained, so there’s always a tension between us in our eyes in the way that we communicate. It’s more of what we don’t say that’s more exciting.”
Two megalomaniacs? Great.